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The current exhibit at Gallery Nucleus, an intimate L.A.-area space, is dedicated to “70 years of Tezuka,” the most important artist in the full history of manga. It’s subtitle is “40 Years of Unico,” but his adorably precious baby unicorn with the fluffy white tail gets short shrift among a wealth of tributes by 30-plus illustrators from around the world. Front and center is Mighty Atom, a.k.a. Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka’s highly acclaimed part-human, part-machine character who became a world-famous anime star. Princess Knight—Tezuka’s graphic novel fairy tale series about a girl who disguises herself as a male prince—also receives the royal treatment.
Sean Danconia: Astro Boy, The Astounding Atomic Automaton (Tezuka Robotics)
During his career Tezuka produced more than 700 manga series, totaling over 170,000 pages, and nearly 500 anime episodes, with more than 200,000 pages of storyboards and scripts. But it’s the quality, not the quantity, of his output that established and secured his lasting legacy. He’s responsible not only for defining and developing Japan’s current mangaka and animator aesthetic but also for earning more professional respect and financial reward for these professions. He’s inspired the likes of Sin City’s Frank Miller and Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki, and his revolutionary innovations—from the wide Betty Boop eyes of his characters to the sophisticated cinematic design of his compositions—continue to influence generations of artists on an international scale.
What follows are my interviews with four of the exhibition’s artists. Chogrin, who’s also the chief curator for 70 Years of Tezuka, discusses the show’s genesis and provides caption commentary on some of the work. Jorge R. Gutierrez shares his thoughts on Tezuka’s universal appeal, and Will Feng zooms in on a peculiar mushroom-creature who’s immediately recognizable to Japanese fans but is practically unknown in the United States. And Sean Danconia—that’s one of his pieces above—offers his insights, opinions, and personal reflections about “the Godfather of Manga.”
And if you hope to see the show you’d better strap on your jet-pack, since it closes this Sunday, October 23rd.
Chogrin: Mighty Atom Redux
Chogrin: “I wanted to create a piece of art that not only paid tribute to Tezuka’s greatest creation, but also symbolized the various aspects of his work. Mechanical, filled with hope, and with warnings and morals.”
Michael Dooley: How did this exhibition originate?
Chogrin: Osamu Tezuka’s artwork is one of the biggest influences in my art style and work ethic. Any time I do an interview I always cite Tezuka. Tezuka was very prolific and kept working until his last breath. I think that says a lot about somebody, and it is amazing how much of a legacy he’s left behind. His art style has a very innocent aura, while his storylines are sometimes very grounded by the realities of life, which I think is a rare combination. He was never afraid to explore new themes and subject matters. Really a true artist that the world will talk about, analyze, and pay tribute to for centuries to come.
I had been wanting to do an official tribute to Tezuka for a long time, since I had already paid tribute to my other big artistic influence, which is E.C. Segar’s Popeye. I had also been wanting to curate an art show with Gallery Nucleus for awhile, since it has been one of my favorite art galleries since I moved to LA in 2009. In November of 2014, I put together a small gallery show for Jorge R. Gutierrez’s “The Book of Life” at Nucleus, and since then the gallery owner, Ben Zhu, and I started discussions about working together again. I pitched various pop-culture themes to Ben, and when I mentioned Tezuka, that seemed to be the one he wanted to do right away. So here we are, almost two years later.
The “Unico 40th” aspect of the show was added by Nucleus, but I think it’s great to celebrate any milestone for any of Tezuka’s creations.
Dooley: And how did the selection process work?
Chogrin: The artists I selected for the show are usually artists I’m good friends with or that I have worked with previously on many other shows. For any art show I curate, I only invite artists that I know will deliver and bring their own unique voice to the show. And for this show specifically, I invited artists whose artwork would fit the subject matter.
I can’t really choose favorites, but I can say that I am proud of all the amazing artwork created for the show and honored to be a part of it. The whole show feels like rays of hope and triumph, which is the same feeling you get from Tezuka’s work. Even though this exhibition may be small, it packs a lot of heart and is a worthy tribute to Tezuka, for sure.
Jorge R. Gutierrez: Tezuka Por Siempre
Chogrin: “I’ve always been a fan of Jorge’s unique art style and the flavor he puts into all his pieces. Naturally his Astro Boy is no exception. I love the reference he makes that he’s basically Tezuka’s Pinocchio, which is very true.”
Dooley: Jorge, how did Tezuka Por Siempre come to be?
Jorge R. Gutierrez: As a kid in Mexico, I adored the black and white Astro Boy. Pinocchio was the first Disney film I saw in the theater and I immediately knew there was a connection between these two little boys who wanted to be real and who were fulfilling a tragic father’s fantasy.
I love that Tezuka’s creations are very Japanese in their heart and philosophy but incredibly universal. A hero to any creators like me who want to showca
se their culture to the world.
William Feng: 百タンツギ
Dooley: And what about your portrait of Tezuka, Will?
Will Feng: To me, Tezuka was the foundation of everything I know and love. Since I work for the Japanese animation industry, there’s a lineage, or heritage, to what I do. Tezuka’s shadow still influences us to this day. My piece was to give love to the character I feel that not many westerners know about, but is well known in Japan. The Hyoutan-Tsugi appears in most of Tezuka’s manga as an emotional element. I thought it would be fun to have all the Hyoutan-Tsugi represent the thoughts, ideas, and emotions in Tezuka’s mind.
Opening night reception. Photo: M. Dooley
Dooley: Sean, what’s the story behind your Astounding Atomic Automaton?
Sean Danconia: I wanted to pay tribute to Tezuka by showcasing his characters at their best, in their most ideal form. I take great, extreme – and humorous – issue with the so-called “SuperFlat” movement that seeks to overly sexualize, politicize, and otherwise denigrate, often making ugly all anime, manga, and comic heroes. I am not for a Postmodernist interpretation of Tezuka. Rather, I would argue that an homage should respect and identify the core components of an author’s original intention and subject matter.
I prefer to showcase Tezuka qua Tezuka. Color. Technology. RetroFuturism. Idealism. Beauty. Heroism. Manga! Infused with what I imagine a 1930s – 60s Americana – Disney, Fleischer, etc. – as seen through the lens of extreme Japanese refinement would be. Because all of this art is a cultural conversation between West and East. And Tezuka was having that conversation with many at once. As evidenced by his continuous references to American and Asian visual, comedic, and literary masters.
The storyline behind the piece is Astro Boy flying off into the sky to do battle with the forces of Pluto. His clothes begin to burn away. Various Astro Clones follow with an array of iconic Tezuka characters, most notably The Phoenix, getting involved in the action.
I wanted it it to look like the ultimate Giant-Sized manga / comic / movie poster, with a little bit of a nod to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko tossed in there. Because we know that Tezuka was a fan of the Marvel “Pop-Art” comic era along with Tadanori Yokoo, Ninkyo Eiga films, Jean-Luc Godard, etc.
I made subtle changes to his face and body but tried to stay true to Tezuka’s original conception of the character. And I certainly aimed to wash away my memory of what the Chinese and American collaboration did to him with that God-awful movie from a few years back.
Dooley: And what does Tezuka mean to you personally?
Danconia: I discovered Tezuka at eight years of age in Frederik Schodt’s book, Manga Manga: The World of Japanese Comics. I was familiar with Astro Boy and Unico at this stage but didn’t really know who the creator was. After reading the excerpt from Tezuka’s magnum opus, Hi No Tori, I was enthralled. Over the past 30-plus years I have read, watched, and inhaled everything from Tezuka that I could get my hands on. It’s hard for me to adequately pay the proper compliment to this man, but I will try.
For me, Tezuka’s keen, genius-level understanding of human nature pulled me in and never let go: the good, the great, the bad, and the terrible – the choice: to think or not to think – mixed together with his humanist, “Liberal” politics – and I mean this in the Classical sense of the word – his positive sense of life, and his beautiful and still realistic vision of the future.
If I could give a word to describe Tezuka’s philosophy, I would call it “Heroic Idealism” as it not only shows life as it is, but as it could, should, and ought to be. Even when Tezuka is demonstrating pure evil, he still gives you clues to redemption at a secular level. And therefore, he provides a subtle moral argument for “the good” without shoving it down your throat, as others might.
In terms of being a surrogate Father / Mentor, Tezuka has produced work for any age, any mood, and any person. He can see the pitfalls of life, love, work and outline them, quite masterfully.
I could go on for days about his art as art, which captures that Shinto-esque understanding that objects – particularly man-made – have souls, personalities. Life! And a wabisabi lack of artificial symmetry. You can see it in all his art. Subordinate to an almost Quantum conception of the universal connections we, as men, have with everything around us.
And also, he wasn’t “Politically Correct.” But he was sympathetic to the victims of racism, even if some would attack him for caricatures that he drew of various ethnic groups.
Life can be hard. So we need art – concrete representations of our vision for existence – to inspire and nourish our soul. Tezuka has done this for me a thousand times over. And I truly am grateful to him.
Cameron Garland: Rebirth
Sebastien Mesnard: Tobio
Chogrin: “Cameron’s and Sebastien’s pieces share the common thread of Astro Boy’s chest / heart compartment, which feel a little sad, but beautiful at the same time.”
Mizna Wada: Happy Sapphire
Chogrin: “Mizna’s Princess Knight plush is so good that it looks like an official product. Gotta love that she included a plush of Tezuka’s most famous cameo character, Hyoutan Tsugi!”
Mark Nagata: Astro Boy
Chogrin: “Mark’s piece is a great division of not just Astro Boy, but of all of Tezuka’s work in general. Mechanical, whimsical, and awe-inspiring.”
Robot Soda: Tezuka and Guillaume Morellec: Astro Boy
Chogrin: “All of Robot Soda’s pieces are wonderful love letters to Tezuka. He always does something outstanding for every show I invite him to. And Guillaume’s realistic portrait of Astro caught my eye right away. It is really powerful and symbolic.”
Erik Ly: Peace
Below: photos from the opening night reception by M. Dooley.
About Michael Dooley
Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.